' emotional, much-Googled commencement speech to Stanford's class of 2005, the Apple CEO tells his audience: "The only way to do great work is to love what you do."
Those words spoke to Alessandro "Alex" Ambrosi, even when their language of origin was still a struggle. Ambrosi,
's sailing coach and a native of Trento, Italy, is doing what he loves, and sharing his passion with anyone willing to learn.
After arriving at HU two years ago to find a program consisting of three members, Ambrosi got to work, relentlessly recruiting to fill the only sailing roster among the four main conferences comprised of historically black colleges (the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the Southwestern Athletic Conference, the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference).
The Pirates have since won six regattas, including the CNU 2-on-2 Invitational in March and last weekend's
2-on-2 Team Race, and qualified for this weekend's prestigious America Trophy in St. Mary's City, Md., with a third-place finish in the South Spring Qualifier on April 3.
"The first thing I want is that they love what they do," Ambrosi said. "And yes, also athletic skills, and it also is good if they are smart. But if you don't love it, you can't do it."
Hykeem Gaddis didn't love it at first. In fact, Gaddis, a junior from Las Vegas, had no sailing experience before being exposed to the sport in a physical education class two years ago.
Offered a spot on HU's team, Gaddis took to sailing like … well, a duck to water.
"I really enjoy it," said Gaddis, who is training to become a skipper, the sailor who commands the two-person "FJ" — Flying Junior — dinghies the team competes in. "It's not your typical football, basketball. You don't necessarily have to be strong. It's more brain than brawn, a lot of strategy."
Conversely, team captain Andy Shoemaker, a junior skipper, was "born on a boat" in Cincinnati, Ohio, and came to Hampton, in part, to sail. In his three seasons, he's seen would-be teammates come and go, and, after the Pirates' previous sailing coach left before the 2009 season, was briefly captain of a team without a coach.
"Since I've been doing it my whole life, it's pretty much a passion for me," Shoemaker said. "I like helping the new guys, and it's fun to get to know them. … I've seen quite a few people come and go. The ones here (now) are pretty much the few that have stuck around."
Like Joshua Gopeesingh, a freshman who'd never sailed before seeing one of the 2,000 fliers Ambrosi got the admissions office to distribute to incoming HU students.
"I just love the ocean," said Gopeesingh, who competed in a form of rowing in his native Trinidad. "I love being out there, in no wind or heavy wind. It's cool people. We have a good coach, we have a good team. We're all close."
Sallah Yandeh, a sophomore skipper originally from Gambia, is "not a very competitive person, as I've told many of my teammates," she said. "I just enjoy being out there. I'm a water child."
Benjamin Cuker, a marine and environmental science professor at HU who helped found the sailing team in 1994 and is its faculty advisor, said the program has always tried to recruit both U.S. and international athletes. Cuker is impressed that Ambrosi, who expects to have two sailors from Venezuela and one from Italy next season, has maintained the school's Caribbean ties while expanding its reach to Europe and South America.
"He brings a fresh vision," Cuker said in an email. "Alex has high expectations and commands the respect of the sailors. He has strong technical skills and is a natural at organizing. A winning coach has to excel at both."
Recruits come, and, on sunny, spring-like days, stay. On cold, January days complete with rain — or snow — they sometimes go.
"A lot of people, they think about the sailing, 'Oh, it's nice. It's like to go to the beach,' but it's a sport, and sometimes it's very hard," Ambrosi said. "It's very easy to find people to recruit, but it's very difficult that they stay in the team for a long time."
Those that do are likely to be shown the Jobs commencement address, or
's fiery, "inch-by-inch" speech from "Any Given Sunday." Both convey the passion Ambrosi feels for sailing — and the Pacino movie was one of the countless American films Ambrosi watched after arriving at Hampton in 2009.
"They hire me for my sailing skills, not my English," Ambrosi said. "That was my big challenge, the English. Now it's getting better, because I understand, and they understand me.
"I work very hard. The first year, I watched three, four movies a week, and read English books."
Though he'd traveled all over the world — living in France, Spain, South Korea and starting a sailing club in Mozambique — Ambrosi had never spent a large amount of time away from Italy. He left "my nice country" to teach American college students to sail.
"In other countries, out of America, kids have to pay (to sail)," Ambrosi said.
At HU, sailing is a varsity sport but not governed by the
, which means no athletic scholarships are available. Ambrosi does have academic scholarships in his limited budget.
"To be a coach at university, 30 percent is about coaching," Ambrosi said. "The other part is recruitment, fund-raising, marketing, building up the program. You have a lot of duties. But I am in shape."
Indeed. Ambrosi, who'll turn 52 this month and is married to pro basketball player and former Old Dominion star Clarisse Machanguana, also throws the javelin, skis, windsurfs, kiteboards and is learning to surf.
As he pilots a speed boat into Hampton Bay for a recent practice, Ambrosi eyes Strawberry Banks, the strip of land that serves as Hampton's home sailing course. Ambrosi envisions a sailing center and a pier capable of housing as many as 36 boats — which would be necessary to achieve his next goal: having HU host the first round of the College Nationals in 2015.
"For me, this is to build up a program," he said. "It's not only trying to win regattas."
But that, too, is a focus. Ambrosi corrects mistakes — "Don't overtrim!" — and becomes irate when sailors, expected to count down from the three sharp blasts on the whistle around Ambrosi's neck until the start of the practice race, aren't in place on time.
"If you don't have a watch, you're not a sailor!" Ambrosi yells.
"Coach really shares his vision," said Simon Kimannee, a freshman skipper from Grenada who's been sailing since age 9. "He shares his goal with us, so we have an understanding of that. We have a unity and a togetherness and we're all trying to work towards achieving it. We have really, really committed people out here, the few of us that are here, and we're very determined as well."
Hampton closes the spring season at
Spring Open on April 23-24. Then it will be back to recruiting for Ambrosi, who also has semi-whimsical plans to open a "real" Italian restaurant in
when he's done coaching.